Culture and Education

A Survey Revisiting the Anonymous Houses
from Wajiro Kon's Nihon no Minka

Norihito Nakatani
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering (School of Creative Science and Engineering), Waseda University; Rekiseikai

Ninety years ago in 1922, Wajiro Kon (1888-1973), who had just been appointed professor in the Department of Architecture at Waseda University, published the book Nihon no Minka: Denen Seikatsusha no Juuka ("Japanese Minka: The Houses of People Living in the Countryside"). The book documents and discusses the state of houses throughout Japan that have been disappearing since then. Recently, there have been retrospectives on Wajiro Kon (one is currently being held at the National Museum of Ethnology until June 19), and his approach of looking closely at the reality of life and the vivid sketches he produced have attracted people's attention. While Kon would eventually become a proponent of "lifology" (the study of people's ways of living), his full-scale research work began with the study of minka (traditional Japanese houses). I organized a research organization called the Rekiseikai ("Asphalt Society") that conducted a six-year follow-up survey of the fifty or so minka recorded in the first edition of Wajiro Kon's Nihon no Minka. The results of this work were compiled and recently published in Revisiting Wajiro Kon's "Nihon no Minka" (Heibonsha).

I would like to make a few remarks about why we came up with the idea of doing a survey like this and what we learned from the results.

First, I would like to draw attention to the special characteristics of the minka Wajiro Kon documented. The word minka has two connotations. First, it refers to a traditional folk house, typified by the thatched-roof house. Secondly, it is used as a general term for regular houses, as frequently heard on the news-ordinary, anonymous houses. Wajiro Kon's minka included both connotations. Symbolically, none of the minka he documented were ever designated as cultural property except one. It was the houses of common people that had continued on in an unbroken line that he depicted most vividly. However, herein lies the problem. How did he go about selecting these anonymous houses back then? There aren't any standards, after all, for selecting ordinary houses. Furthermore, what has become of the houses he collected information on?

1: Surveying boathouses along the Itoi River in Niigata Prefecture

The survey was launched with the selfless and curiosity-fuelled participation of cultural heritage conservation specialists, minka researchers, landscape designers, folklorists, photographers and editors, as well as the cooperation of successive groups of students working at our lab, using the Wajiro Kon documents organized and preserved at the Kogakuin University Library as a foundation. For most of the minka under study, the specific address information was unclear although we could trace the area names of them. So we pieced together the fragmentary information we had, asked for help from regional boards of education, visited people at local sites and relied on the instantaneous inferences drawn by various professionals affiliated with Rekiseikai, repeating the process over and over again to locate each minka.

By the time our work of revisiting the minka was over, we had learned many interesting things. First, we were able to make a rough conjecture about Kon's method of selecting minka, referred to earlier. He would venture out from the last stops on the railway lines and other modes of transportation, which were being expanded at the time, and document houses not too far from the station where he got off. While this finding was completely contrary to our expectation that he had pushed into the interior where there were no transportation systems, we have come to believe that this method was actually the most valuable one for Wajiro Kon. This is because the railroad was a major factor in the urbanization of the region. Kon perceived the changes taking place in the minka as they began to be affected by this urbanization. It was the existence of minka that survived amid the conflict between rural and urban areas that captured his interest.

Most surprising of all is the fact that more of these houses remain today than was imagined. Such is the stability of Japanese minka-a stability we would not have realized if not for the survey. The outskirts of the Kanto region have, of course, been strongly impacted by urbanization, with some minka submerged under water from dams and others destroyed by tourism development. On the other hand, more than half of the minka in the Kansai region have survived. Furthermore, the minka that remain are not limited to houses that are actually being used, but include abandoned houses that were not dismantled by their owners and have somehow or other remained standing. I think the state of these minka that have survived "somehow or other" may hold important lessons for future architectural conservation work. For while the deliberate conservation of famous buildings is important, I have come to believe it is perhaps better to simply allow obscure minka to remain standing, without anyone being the wiser.

2: Wajiro Kon's "Fisherman's House in Minami-Awa" from Nihon no Minka (1922)

3: The house thought to be the "Fisherman's House in Minami-Awa," 90 years later (Photo Credit: Norihito Nakatani)

One more point I would like to discuss is what I was able to learn about interacting with local people we were not yet acquainted with. It is completely out of line if we behave just like investigators. In fact, our efforts at figuring out how to get the local people interested in what we were doing resulted in miraculous discoveries. For example, we would first go to at a local teahouse that served as a social meeting place and order some tea, start chatting with the proprietor, and from there, gradually be accepted into the village community, and this would eventually lead to the discovery of minka. We know that the network of village communities remains strong to this day.

The Great Kanto Earthquake occurred the year after Wajiro Kon's Nihon no Minka was published. The Great East Japan Earthquake occurred the year after Rekiseikai's work of revisiting the minka was completed. While unexpected, this turn of events has made our documentation all the more valuable. While the Rekiseikai survey is finished, we are currently organizing our records, to the extent possible, in their original, unedited form in folders for each house. We hope this collection of folders can somehow be preserved and re-used when another organization emerges with similar aims. It is our conviction that this work will enable the future documentation, from the bottom up, of the transformations that will take place in the years ahead throughout this land we call Japan. In conclusion, I would like to thank the local people who kindly helped us when we asked them directions, at times, as a matter of concern to themselves.

4: An example from the field survey conducted by Rekiseikai. Two minka that had survived with the same room layout, facing each other across a road in the Okada district of the island of Izu Oshima, 2007.

Norihito Nakatani
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering (School of Creative Science and Engineering), Waseda University; Rekiseikai

Born in 1965. Specialized in Temporal Science for Architectural Representation and Architectural History. After teaching at Osaka City University, he became a Professor of Architecture in the School of Creative Science and Engineering on the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda University. Author of SEVERALNESS+: City, Architecture, Human Beings and the Cycle of Things [Severarunesu+ (Purasu): Jibutsu Rensa to Toshi, Kenchiku, Ningen] (Kajima Institute Publishing, 2011) and KOKUGAKU, MEIJI, KENCHIKUKA: A Study of Structural Characteristics in the Nationalism of Modern "JAPANESE" Architecture [Kokugaku, Meiji, Kenchikuka: Kindai "Nihonkoku" Kenchiku no Keifu wo Megutte] (Naminorisha, 1993). Coauthor of Revisiting Wajiro Kon's "Nihon no Minka" [Kon Wajiro "Nihon no Minka" Saihou] (Heibonsha, 2011) and A History of Japanese Architectural Styles [Nihon Kenchiku Youshiki Shi] (Bijutsu Shuppan-Sha, 1999). Editor of Into the Void: The Collected Works of Adolf Loos, Vol. 1 [Adorufu Roosu Chosakushuu 1: Kokuu he Mukete] (acetate, an editing/publishing organism, 2011).